Life and death. Joy and pain. Love and loss. Dermot Kennedy has always been fascinated by extremes. On his brilliant debut EP, ‘Doves & Ravens,’ the young Dubliner draws inspiration from all the moments of brightness and darkness this world has to offer, crafting music that’s at once soaring and intimate, stripped-back and explosive. Stuttery hip-hop and R&B-influenced percussion underpins his weathered vocals as he combines organic and electronic elements into an arresting, emotional blend that calls to mind the adventurous arrangements of Bon Iver, James Blake, and James Vincent McMorrow.
Rich beyond just its production, the EP showcases Kennedy as a writer in possession of a sophistication well beyond his 25 years. He pens lyrics with a poet’s eye and a rapper’s precision, conjuring vivid imagery and transfixing audiences with the unique rhythm and flow of his soulful delivery.
“I think reading poetry and listening to hip hop offer a lot of the same rewards,” reflects Kennedy. “The good rappers are so honest, and in my opinion they deserve to be viewed as poets. Regardless of the form, though, I just feed off of anyone who’s expressing themselves and sharing their feelings.”
That’s precisely what drew Kennedy to the music of fellow Irish artist Glen Hansard, who he met by chance on the streets of Dublin.
“A few years later, when I was making my first recordings, I invited him to the studio,” remembers Kennedy. “He couldn’t make it, but he called back and offered me ten minutes onstage at his sold-out Christmas show. He said, ‘You can use the guys in the band, you can do it acoustic, the stage is yours for ten minutes.'”
Kennedy made the most of his time in the spotlight, performing a stunning rendition of his 2016 single “After Rain.” Praised by the BBC and hailed by The Irish Times as “woodsy romantic folk pop,” the track would go on to rack up a staggering 19 million streams on Spotify, where Kennedy averages nearly 2 million monthly listeners these days.
The massive audience brought on by his streaming success has enabled Kennedy to sell out his own shows in Dublin and London now, but when it came time to record ‘Doves & Ravens,’ he eschewed any temptation to repeat the same musical formula that had brought him past popularity, instead pushing himself further artistically and personally than he’d ever gone before.
“I did the acoustic thing for so long, and I still love it, but what I mainly listen to is hip hop, and I think that was bound to come through in the production,” he explains. “The first time we tried putting a beat over the verse of a song, I got so excited by how the acoustic element of the guitar was working with the programmed sound of the drums. I realized that if I ignored that feeling the music gave me and didn’t chase that side of things, I’d be letting myself down.”
The EP opens with “Glory,” an emotional, infectious tour-de-force that solidifies Kennedy’s status as a vocal powerhouse with equal parts grit and grace. Densely stacked harmonies meet minimalist instrumental production on the track, which is propelled forward by hypnotically off-kilter percussion loops. “I’ve learned that doves and ravens fly the same,” he sings in a subtle nod to the two life-altering events that underlie each of the EP’s four songs: falling in love and facing loss.
“In my songs, verse to verse, line to line can jump back and forth between those two subjects,” says Kennedy. “They’re both always in my mind, and I think that goes a long way toward explaining the idea behind ‘Doves & Ravens.’ The songs all have a mix of light and shade.”
On the fingerpicked “A Closeness,” Kennedy reconciles the pain of loss with gratitude for having experienced something so special at all, while the rolling piano of “To All My Friends” honors the strong women in his life who have led by example, and the dreamy “Boston” harkens back to a summer in America when life was simpler.
Kennedy’s live shows are intense and powerful experiences, something he’s again quick to credit to the influence of poetry, in particular the African-American writers Black Ice and Amir Sulaiman.
“Watching those guys perform serves as a reminder to give everything you have with every line,” says Kennedy. “They don’t have music to back them up, so they have to be convincing with every word.
Convincing listeners has never been something Kennedy’s struggled with. He sings with a fire in his soul and writes with raw, unfiltered honesty reflective of both his emotional and musical maturity. It’s a rare combination that enables both his recordings and performances to cover such a wide and potent spectrum. Celebratory and solemn. Playful and serious. Analog and electronic. Dermot Kennedy has always been fascinated by extremes.